Every lesson tells a story part two

This post was first published as the second part of a longer post about using narrative in teaching and learning. Part one talked about encouraging students to “tell the story” of their lessons. This part talks about how I experimented with using narrative in  lesson observations.

fly on the wall steve p2008 on flickr

As a relatively new  director of studies in quite a large school (40+ teachers), I wanted to get to know my teachers – and the students – inside the classroom as well as out.  But of course this meant arranging observations, and we all know that – unfortunately – observations can be fairly fraught.   They carry a lot of baggage with them. The thought, and of course, the fact, of being observed can be stressful.  I really didn’t want to stress my busy, hardworking staff anymore than was necessary, but I really, really wanted to be allowed to share their teaching experiences, to have an insider’s view of their classes.  And at the time I wanted to lessen the stress as much as possible.

So I explained that what I was interested in was not an observation as such, but just a “taster”.

A taster?  Yes, a kind of “moment in time”, fly-on-the wall view of the school from the inside.

I explained that they could choose the class I came to watch. And that I didn’t need to know anything about the class, the students or the  lesson, before I came in.  Of course, if there was anything they wanted to tell me about the class beforehand, I was happy – and  very interested-  to hear it.  But I was equally happy and interested to come into the lesson completely “in the dark”.

And, of course, if there was something (or someone) they wanted me to look out for in particular, obviously that was fantastic. But, no, basically, I did not want a plan.

What no lesson plan?  No, I wanted the teachers, as much as possible, to do what they always did.  I didn’t want them to waste precious time and energy completing pro formas, or planning something out of the ordinary. What I wanted to see was  a “snippet” – an “episode”  – in the life and dynamic of their classes.

I explained that I would then write up my impressions of the class, the group, the lesson, the dynamics and we could share those impressions and talk about them after the class. In effect, I was going to write the story of the lesson.

I don’t know that it lessened the stress immediately, but as the process got under way ( I started with the more outgoing teachers, the ones who showed most interest in my experiment) and word got round, I think it did help – at least a little.

The stories followed a fairly rigid format.  I kicked off with a description of the class, level, size, personalities, group dynamics, things I liked  about it, things I found interesting, and a couple of questions to ask about them.

I then gave a description of what I saw happening in the class from a learning point of view. I commented on any activities or stages that were particularly successful.  I asked a few –  genuine – questions about teaching decisions, and student reactions.

I’d finish off with a kind of profile of the teacher, their classroom personality, their strengths, and any surprises (some teachers are such different people, or at least show such a different sides to their personality in class).  I wish I could find an example to show you – but it was so long ago, so many dead laptops back in time :(

After the class we’d meet, I’d hand the teacher my notes, my story, and then we’d discuss my impressions. How accurate were they? What did I miss?  Was the class functioning as normal? Why? why not?  And we discussed dynamics, and interaction and often our discussions opened up into general discussions about teaching, and teacher motivation and plans for the future.

For me, it was a huge success. I really felt I knew the teachers much better, I knew the school better, I knew our students better.  And I really think it helped create an even more positive atmosphere in the staffroom.

Stories – they’re just great 🙂

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10 Responses to Every lesson tells a story part two

  1. Alan Tait says:

    Being observed can be an unpleasant and unnatural experience even for very experienced teachers, and it doesn’t make the DoS popular. It sounds like you really removed the unnecessary elements and got to the vital stuff.

    What has your experience been of peer observation [teacher to teacher]?

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Alan,
      Generally very positive. In the same DOS post I was observed by my ADOSes on a couple of occasions, and took part in a couple of team teaching experiments – but far fewer than I’d have liked – so I got to experience the observation process from the other side. As a new DOS in an established school this had its element of stress too 😉
      I love opening my doors to other teachers – but possibly not as much as I like being invited into other classrooms. It’s so interesting to actually see our peers teaching, and not just hear them talk about it. It’s something that’s always stimulated and motivated me.
      Again at the same school, we tried to facilitate and encourage peer observation, covering for classes where possible, but with busy schedules, and the perception of extra planning time required, not many teachers took us up on it. We did experiment with a TD credit system, and teachers who took part in team teaching or peer observation could choose to go to fewer of the weekly TD workshops. This worked to some extent, but again, as a novelty rather than as a routine. And it was certainly something that appealed to the more experience staff, or the ones taking the extended DELTA course.
      I don’t know if that answers your question! What about you, any experiences to share?

  2. Alan Tait says:

    Well L was only really a DoS for a two year stint, and at a couple of UK summer camp schools, and the two dynamics were very different. In the long-term stint I felt I got round to observation too late. But we did start training sessions fairly early and that helped to build staff relationships.

    In the summer camps you just go mental for four weeks, exhausted for two more and then you go home nackered!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      I know where you’re coming from! I DOSed on summer courses too – loved them, but needed a holiday after the two month stint! And that was with adults. I’m guessing yours were with YLs?

      I was really lucky that I had very little scheduled teaching in the mornings and part of my job was to observe all the classes at least once in each one month course. It was expected from a “quality control” point of view (ie the students/clients expected it to happen) and to help with moving students who’d been placed in the “wrong” level. There was no time for peer teaching but some teachers did get involved in team teaching projects, bringing together classes from different levels on project work. There’s so much flexibility with that kind of thing on a summer course as all the classes are held in the same place at the same time and there was no final assessment. An ideal teaching world in fact 🙂

  3. Hi Ceri,
    I found your article really useful. I had a similar experience as a co-ordinator in a large language school. In the end we opted for a peer observation system which works really well as the teacher feels the system belongs to them and not the management. By the way, I really enjoy your blog.
    All the best,
    Kieran

  4. Richard says:

    Very interesting. I’m informally building a personal knowledge bank of different ways to deal with observations, I will add this to my mental collection!

  5. seburnt says:

    It’s so interesting to read about others’ ways of attacking teacher and classroom observations. It definitely helps give alternative ideas. I’ll definitely put some thought into how I want to do them differently.

  6. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Rich, hi Tyson,
    It is interesting – and I guess every context nurtures/needs a different approach. I’m not in a position to experiment with this at the moment, but I think if I was I’d be exploring new ways of doing it too.
    Thanks for the comments!
    Ceri

  7. Ann Foreman says:

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.

    Best,

    Ann

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